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Evolution and Creationism in America’s Biology Classrooms

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January 22, 2013 Tags: Education
Evolution and Creationism in America’s Biology Classrooms

Today's entry was written by Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Although the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time. Indeed, since 1982, Gallup has consistently reported that 40-47% of Americans endorse young-Earth creationism, 35-40% believe that humans evolved but that God guided that process, and 9-16% believe that humans evolved but that God had no role in the process (Gallup, 2011). Similarly, a Harris Poll reported, “many more people believe in miracles, angels, hell and the devil than in Darwin’s theory of evolution” (Harris Poll, 2009).

These facts persist in the face of educational guidelines in most states that mandate the teaching of evolution, court decisions that have declared the teaching of creationism as unconstitutional and having “no scientific merit or educational value as science [because it] is simply not science” (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982), thousands of scientific papers and books that document evidence for evolution, direct observations of evolution, and countless endorsements of evolution (and rejections of creationism) by professional scientific organizations. Decades of costly science education reform have not reformed popular acceptance of evolution: most of the public continues to see religion and mainstream science as diametrically opposed, and when presented with that choice, most will choose the supernatural over science, even when it means rejecting the foundations of modern biology. Why?

Many factors – for example, the media and religion -- influence people’s beliefs about the evolution and creationism, as well as their acceptance of science. One of these influences is education. What are students taught about evolution and creationism?

Evolution and Creationism in High School Biology Courses

Students have widely variable introductions to evolution in their high school biology courses. Although most states have educational guidelines that mandate the teaching of evolution, only about 70% of students entering college report that their high school biology courses included evolution (in some form) and not creationism. Although educational guidelines provide important support for teachers wanting to teach evolution, these guidelines are irrelevant to many biology teachers and administrators.

For a detailed account of how skeptical Christian college students navigate the many social and religious concerns to reconcile their faith with evolutionary creation, see Mark Winslow’s series.

Approximately 20% of students are taught neither creationism nor evolution in their high school biology courses (Moore, 2007). Another “cautious 60%” of biology teachers want to avoid controversy, and neither advocate evolution nor explicitly endorse nonscientific alternatives (Berkman and Plutzer, 2011). Even when teachers do teach evolution, they often cover the topic in a trivial or disparaging way (Bandoli, 2008, and references therein), thereby perpetuating a cycle of ignorance reinforced by popular opinion (Berkman and Plutzer, 2011). When these students arrive on college campuses, they are predisposed to remain skeptical of evolution, for their perceptions and prior knowledge strongly influence their learning. This is especially important for evolution, for many students view evolution as negative and undesirable (Brem, Ranney, and Schindel, 2003) and sense an “overlap of some ideas that the theory [of evolution] advocates with other social, epistemological, and religious beliefs” (Hakoyem and BouJaode, 2008).

The Creationists Down the Hall

Most Americans reject evolution, and most biologists have grown accustomed to headlines such as “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism” (Gallup, 2010) and “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins” (Gallup, 2012). However, most biologists are less familiar with the fact that creationism is thriving among undergraduate biology majors (Verhey, 2005; also see above), biology graduate students (Gregory and Ellis, 2009), and former students who have become biology teachers (Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer, 2008; Moore, 2007, and references therein).

Despite their training, many biology teachers are creationists. Indeed, fully one-sixth of biology teachers are young-Earth creationists (Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer, 2008), and a presentation of young-Earth creationism as legitimate science would presumably confuse students about the basic tenets of science in general, and of evolution in particular. Because teachers’ personal views about a subject affect their teaching of the subject (Carlesen, 1991; Grossman, 1989), and because teachers with strong religious convictions accept evolution less often than their less-religious peers (Trani, 2004), it is not surprising that many of today’s biology teachers explicitly teach creationism in their biology courses. Although few biology teachers in public schools teach creationism without mentioning evolution, 20-25% of today’s biology teachers teach evolution and creationism in their courses (Moore, 2007, and references therein). Although a handful of creationism-based biology teachers are confronted for their malpractice (e.g., Rodney LeVake; see Moore, 2004), most are tolerated — and sometimes even encouraged — to teach creationism, possibly because of pressure from the public and administrators to ignore evolution and/or teach creationism (Cavanagh, 2005, Verango and Toppo, 2005). As Don Aguillard, the lead plaintiff in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) noted in 1999 (Moore, 1999), “Creationism is alive and well among biology teachers.”

When Biology Teachers Teach Creationism, What Do They Teach?

When biology teachers teach creationism, they usually present only a particular version of the Judeo-Christian creation story. Moreover, these stories are often presented as a scientific alternative to evolution (Moore, 2008), despite the fact that creation science has “no scientific or educational value as science [because it] is simply not science” (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982). Relatively few biology teachers who teach creationism present it as religious idea, philosophical idea, or as part of a survey of several religions (Moore, 2008). They do not “teach the controversy,” in other words, but present the relationship between modern evolutionary biology and their faith as one of self-evident conflict, assuming (and teaching) that their version of creationism is the only true alternative.

Does It Matter When Biology Teachers Teach Creationism?

Yes—high school biology courses have a strong and lingering impact on students’ views of evolution and creationism (Moore and Cotner, 2009). Students who were taught creationism in high school know significantly less about evolution when they enter college than do students who were taught evolution in high school. Similarly, students who claimed that most of their knowledge of evolution came from non-school sources (e.g., the media, church) knew less about evolution than did students who claimed that their primary source of knowledge about evolution was their high school biology class (Moore, Cotner, and Bates, 2009).

Solving the Problem?

Several studies have claimed that additional evolution-related training will help improve the teaching of evolution in high schools. We are not nearly as optimistic. Although workshops and short-courses presumably help and encourage teachers willing to consider teaching evolution, focused instruction about evolution often does not affect students’ or teachers’ acceptance of evolution (Alters and Nelson, 2002; Chinsamy and Plaganyi, 2008). Moreover, these workshops will not reach creationism-based biology teachers who are dedicated to substituting their religious beliefs for science in their classes.

In our experience, these teachers rarely attend such workshops, even if they are paid to do so, and even then their acceptance of evolution is unaffected. After all, these teachers have access to and know the evidence for evolution – it’s widely available, including in the textbooks that they adopt and use in their classes – and they are not convinced by that evidence. We know of no evidence that the availability of such solely science-focused workshops, seminars, and other forms of evolution-related education will significantly affect what creationism-based biology teachers teach. Since the impediments to better teaching of evolution are primarily the philosophical and religious views of biology teachers, programs that do not address the more personal, “non-science” issues of science educators directly and effectively are likely to have little impact on what students learn in high-school biology classrooms. Instead, if further fact-based instruction in evolution is part of the answer, it is likely to be most effective with young children, who are developmentally primed to seek explanations for natural phenomena. However, evolution instruction is essentially absent prior to high-school biology; by high school, a student’s teleological demands have likely been met by supernatural explanations, creating a cycle of adults who know little about evolution and teach creationism-flavored biology.

Creationism has long been popular among biology teachers (Moore, 2007), and there is no evidence that improved state educational standards, proclamations by professional organizations, and decades of science education reform have made much difference. As John Scopes commented almost 50 years ago, “I don’t think the world changes very rapidly” (Anonymous, 1966).

View Literature Cited

Randy Moore and Sehoya Cotner are biology professors at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. They teach a variety of courses, including those about introductory biology, Galápagos, and understanding the evolution-creationism controversy. Randy and Sehoya's most recent books include Arguing for Evolution: An Encyclopedia for Understanding Science (2011, Greenwood Press) and Understanding Galápagos: What You'll See and What It Means (2013, McGraw-Hill).

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RonH - #76156

January 22nd 2013

I wonder to what extent the aggressive exclusion of any religious discussion from public schools has backfired in this regard.  In churches and religious schools, the dichotomy that Christianity and evolution cannot be reconciled is typically advanced.  But material like that available here on Biologos, which can help bridge this perceived conflict between science and Christianity, stands no chance of being introduced either in public schools (because it’s “religion”) or religious ones (because it’s “evolution”).  If we were allowed to discuss the history of the conflict and the ways in which Christians have reconciled Christianity and scientific evidence for evolution in public schools (though perhaps not in science class), biology teachers wishing to address evolution in greater depth might not face quite as much opposition.

Ironically, in many places in the US if you want a good biology education your best bet is Catholic school.

Justin Laine - #77462

March 14th 2013

You have some good points here, it’s confusing and annoyong to stand between these two theories when in fact the student’s choice really depends on his educational and cultural background. I with the science because science answers all my questions, science helped me get an exciting career, I love what I do I’m glad I’m at this point.

Chip - #76160

January 22nd 2013

I find it interesting (and sad) that BioLogos won’t publish pieces from ID advocates or those with conservative theological views without lengthy point-by-point rebuttals. But stuff like the following consistently gets an uncritical free pass:

“by high school, a student’s teleological demands have likely been met by supernatural explanations”

In context, the authors clearly consider the meeting of teleological demands by supernatural explanations to be negative, unscientific or both. Is it the “demands” themselves that are bad, or the application of supernatural solutions? Is the implication of this that only naturalistic explanations are correct or appropriate? What, if anything, does evolutionary theory have to say about teleology?

“most [of the public] will choose the supernatural over science,”

IOW, there is a strict dichotomy between the two: one can have science OR the supernatural, but not both. Clearly, if one is to be rejected (and one must be when the conversation is framed in this way), it’s not hard to see which option is favored by the authors. It is hard to see which is favored by BioLogos, however, which tends to equivocate or ignore the question when asked what if any role might exist for the supernatural in an evolutionary framework. Did God just wind up natural selection and let it go, or did he actually do more than that? If so, what?  When?  How…? 

“Despite their training, many biology teachers are creationists…” and “if further fact-based instruction in evolution is part of the answer, it is likely to be most effective with young children…” (my emphasis)

This one’s remarkable.  Since the evidence is not strong enough to convince a population of highly motivated, educated adults (college biology grads), let’s push the effort down into middle and elementary school curricula where the idea might get better traction!

Since evolutionary theory is often compared to gravity, imagine a couple of physics profs writing a piece in which they lament the state of education in their field: “Despite their training, many physics teachers refuse to teach gravity in their classrooms—and this in spite of numerous court rulings and injunctions mandating the same…” What other scientific field of inquiry relies on court rulings to shore up the validity of its educational enterprise?

Yes, BioLogos covered themselves with a flaccid, generic disclaimer. But since their commitment to theism is ostensibly as strong as their commitment to evolutionary theory, I’m wondering if there are any statements in this piece that BioLogos would necessarily disagree with.

sy - #76164

January 22nd 2013

I found the article interesting, but a bit frustrating. I dont doubt the statistics given, but I would like to know a few more details. I am assuming that this refers to public high schools, and not religious, Christian schools. Also, is there any indication of regional and/or socioeconomic differences in the percent of schools where creationism is taught. As for the biology teachers who do not “believe in evolution” where did they study, and where did they get their degrees? Are they trained in biology, and if so, at what level, and at what kind of college? Clearly there is a lot of diversity in this country, and I think it would be helpful to have more information about this. Thanks

Irfan Bashir - #80372

May 21st 2013

Well this article that I’ve been waited for so long. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. philosophy topics

Sharon Homer-Drummond - #76179

January 24th 2013

The article is interesting, but a little frustrating. If our only option is to ‘get ‘em while they’re young,’ then we’re going to fail. I teach biology at a conservative, evangelical Christian school. We teach evolution, but are also required to put a waiver statement of sorts on our syllabi that states that the school teaches ‘evolution as a theory not a fact,’ and that holds humans as specially created. The more experienced professors put it on the their syllabi as a matter of course and then ignore it and teach evolution. I worry that we’re sending students a double-message this way, and that we don’t know what the effects might be on students who enter biological studies and might perceive us to be speaking out of both sides of our mouths. I would dearly love to see some concrete proposals for changing hearts and minds in upper schools and among church communities. Case in point, I went to Wheaton College (and evangelical college in Illinois), and had my first real exposure to a clear teaching on evolution there. It wasn’t until the process was well-explained to me, in a very non-threatening manner, that I began to accept it as factual. Surely there is a way to broaden that teaching style.

Douglas E - #76180

January 24th 2013

A few years ago, a couple of my colleagues and I thought we had a decent strategy for addressing the problem that Moore and Cotner bring up.  We have known for some time that ‘throwing more science’ at these folks does not work, and likewise know that most science teachers in public schools do not have the training and background to effectively direct creationist students to resources that would help them cope with the realization that the cosmos, the earth and everything therein did not appear in six days, nor was there a worldwide flood, etc.  Thus we wanted to assemble an array of resources ranging from essays to videos that teachers could use as an adjunct to the topic at hand from evolution to embryology.  Our proposal made it through the tortuous funding system at the Templeton Foundation, all the while with positive feedback and comments.  Final decision – no can do, with absolutely no reason given.  We gave it a second try, via BioLogos, and again it was looking good.  But again, no go.  My perspective is that our proposed theological direction was not conservative enough.  It was suggested that we replace or add another biblical scholar to our proposed project to provide some ‘balance’ – translation – conservative evangelicals would be upset if we didn’t.  We didn’t.

Terry Taerum - #76183

January 24th 2013

It is a peculiarity of the debate between creationism and evolutionism that neither acknowledges nor understands the appeal of the other.  Too often the hissy fits end up with both sides throwing dusty manuals at one another - creationists with revisions of Genesis and evolutionists with revisions of Origin of Species.  One is reminded of a brawl in a public library where two librarians attempt to out-word their opponent to death. 

In my view, all this debate misses out on the most appealing aspects of both views of the world - their narratives. 

The beauty of the creation narrative is its simplicity and its purposes for mankind.  In about 500 words (not quite enough to make a theory out of it) the universe is created.  It is poetry in so many ways in form, repetition, and structure.  It is a narrative easily memorized and is beautiful in any language. 

The beauty of evolution is the way in which humans, chimps, and cabbage all fit so wonderfully together.   It makes it own kind of poetry whereby one can see the close biological rhythm of life where it is easy to imagine and it is a narrative which make sense of common ancestory and we ride the evolutionary trail.  We easily remember the names and actions of DNA, rRNA, mRNA, micoRna, the parts of genes and mutations because everything flows from one form to another.  There is a fluidity, a flow, a stream of life. 

These narratives are also their achilles heels.  The only future one finds in evolution is the possibly one of our ancestors might, through a series of epigenetical mutations, change into a caring and loving super-being - then again, they might as easily mutate into super-pariahs.  Perhaps the best we might hope for then is the human race converges as chimps, at one with nature. 

So far as creationism is concerned, as beautiful as its narrative might be, it would best be described as the ker-splat theory…  man mysteriously materializes out of dirt with its silicon, oxygen and aluminum based compounds and, (DNA evidence to the contrary) walks and talks, at one with God. 

There is no hope for these narrative to merge, and there is no reason why they ought to.  That would destroy two beautiful and true narratives (in their own views of the world).   


GJDS - #76186

January 25th 2013

What an astonishing statement:  ‘evolution as a theory not a fact,’ I went through a public school system and science was taught as what was understood then - religious studies (non-denominational) als taught humanity was a ‘special’ creation. I do not remember anyone having arguments. The science teacher went through the stone-age people (or were they neanderthals - this changed with time) fighting saber tooth tigers and dinosaurs (I still remember rexy the king of them all). Yet when this ‘advanced’ to the missing link and the ‘absolute’ proof that finaly showed how the human species came about, the science tgeacher was happy to ‘update’ his teaching with the phrase, ‘but it is only a theory’ and science ‘progresses’ in this manner. Religious people simply nodded. At higher education, we all seemed to believe that a great deal of Darwin was uo for argumen - no-one that I can recall seemed to go nuts at this.

I am happy that I did not get my education in the USA.

GJDS - #76187

January 25th 2013

that should read .... Darwin was up for argumentation and debate .....

Jon Garvey - #76189

January 25th 2013


I agree the US seems to have painted itself into a corner over this. My UK state school experience matches yours - except that the only reference to stone-age man fighting dinosaurs was a satirical poster of Racquel Welch with the head-teacher’s head on it that my friend put up.

There were only 5 of us doing advanced level biology, which made for pretty close co-operation with the staff, to whom I am still grateful for getting me a distinction at Scholarship Level. I look back through my notes and see population genetics, phylogeny, DNA, semi-erect hominids and so on as then understood: quaintly simple, viewered from 40+ years later, of course.

At the same time the teachers were well aware I was also running the school Christian Union (Yes, we could pray in school, and the sky didn’t fall in). I don’t remember any discussion in class about evolution in particular, but it would have been no big deal, even if I’d expressed conflict between my science education and what I was getting from the Bible.

The only conflict I remember having was disputing the maximum size amphibians could reach based on fossil evidence. I was, after all, supposed to be studying science rather than ideology. And, come to that, in my own time Christianity rather than Creationism.

Whether the same situation applies now I’m less sure - when my son studied biology, Dawkins had become a set book so ideology was getting a foothold.

GJDS - #76203

January 26th 2013


You had some fun too - my memory of evolution is not strong except for (1) I still recall wondering if Rex as king of the dionosaurs had a haram (this is not a reflection of all things studious), and (2) and evolutionist seemed to follow me around saying the piltdown man had finally proved I was not scientific. In my defence, I was dux of the school, top in my field, and all of my education was paid by various scholarships I won. I guess this chap was wrong on a few fronts - on the King of the dionosaurs, I have not heard anything since.

Jon Garvey - #76207

January 26th 2013

There’s still a bit being said about Mr Piltdown, though. Given his acceptance for 40 years, I think he comes out rather ahead of the Paluxy River footprints in the gullibility stakes.

It’s funny, I can remember first hearing about him from my headteacher at Primary school, c1962, but although the fraud was uncovered in 1953 I still remember some aura of respectability about it. Maybe there was still some doubt in the public mind - or maybe I was just too young to have remembered what I was told clearly.

Either way, I remember it as a human fraud, not as a comment on evolutionary theory. Pithecanthropus erectus was still in the frame, after all, before he got upgraded to Homo.

Jon Garvey - #76190

January 25th 2013

PS I agree with Chip that the reference to “teleological demands” is a bit bizarre. I take it to mean that legitimate interest in teleology is what leans kids towards Creationism.

Isn’t that half the problem? Evolutionary theory not only refuses to deal with teleology, on the basis that it isn’t the remit of science (wasn’t methodological naturalism about that?), but in not a few iterations of it, including some textbooks, the whole concept of teleology is denied. Remember “blind and purposeless”?

That situation will not be helped one jot by Christian teachers (like some other TEs) mistaking evolution’s efficient causes for sufficient causes and back-pedalling on their own view of God’s purpose in creation. That Creationists have also fallen into the materialist trap of being more concerned with the “how” than the “why” simply means that neither side has much to offer in bringing science and faith together.

sy - #76210

January 27th 2013


Your point is central, I believe to the entire debate. Evolutionary theory has no need of teleology, but that doesnt mean there is no purpose. Natural selection has, after all produced us, and we are nothing, if not teleogical creatures. Purpose drives everything we do, including our cultural and technological evolution, which is far faster and more powerful than any biological mechanism. So, even leaving out the issue of God’s purpose, it seems clear to me that teleology has indeed entered the world of life, through us.

Eddie - #76212

January 28th 2013

Hello, Sy.

Regarding your second sentence, I would have written:  “Evolutionary theory has been conducted as if it had no need of teleology.”

Since the days of Darwin, most evolutionary theorists have sought to find ways of explaining the forms and variety of living creatures in terms of the unintended results of collocations of blind natural causes.  That this was an a priori commitment of evolutionary theory is made clear from the fact that Darwin did not even know what a “gene” was, let alone a DNA molecule; he had no way of knowing what mechanisms might be involved in producing new body plans etc.—yet he was confident that nature was up to the task of blind-searching its way to major new forms.  He could not have had this confidence—given his ignorance of possible mechanisms—without the working assumption was that evolution was a wholly natural process; and, given his understanding of the notion “natural,” this entailed that evolution was also an unintentional process (i.e., unintended by the molecules, genes, organisms, hominids, etc. that it involved).  

Yet the assumption that “nature” does not operate teleologically is not a result of science—not something that has been proved by science.  It is, rather, a working assumption of current science.  (A working assumption not shared by, say, Aristotle.)  Modern scientists do not try to disprove teleological explanations.  They simply conduct their science as if teleological explanations do not exist.  (In this they follow the advice of Bacon and Descartes.)  Similarly, the assumption that “evolution”—presuming it happens—is a wholly natural process which happens totally without any divine assistance or supplement—is a working assumption of evolutionary biology—and again is not something that has been proved by evolutionary biology.

These two decisions—to rule out particular supernatural involvement in origins, and to rule out teleology in nature, have governed evolutionary theory since Darwin.  That they can be questioned is plain from the fact that Darwin’s colleague, Wallace, broke with Darwin over supernatural guidance, and that James Shapiro seems to be reintroducing a sort of teleology (albeit of a “Lamarckian” rather than an Aristotelian kind) by insisting that organisms can and do to some extent rewrite their own genomes in response to environmental challenges.

I’m not arguing that teleology has as yet found its way back into mainstream evolutionary biology.  I think the resistance to teleology will be very high among the biologists, who are today probably the most hard-boiled secularists of all the scientists, and who associate teleology with religion.  But I think it’s arguable that if evolutionary theory does not start to incorporate some teleological notions—some notion of the direction of evolutionary change—it will not be able to deal with the new empirical data about the self-engineering of cells, and will not succeed in explaining major overhauls of body plans.  The adoption of teleology doesn’t necessarily require endorsing divine interventions, but it does require a more open-minded attitude to the question “what is nature?” than most scientists have displayed for the past 150 years.  “The nature of nature” may turn out to be quite different from what Bacon and Descartes supposed.

Jon Garvey - #76216

January 28th 2013


Apart from the possible “need” for teleology in science you highlight, the OP suggests that there’s a perceived need for it amongst American youth, which is what pushes them to Creationism.

But science, we are told, has no place for teleology. That belongs to religion. Yet I understand that religious education is forbidden in US state schools (thanks to that nice Madalyn Murray O’Hair lady who coerced her son to go to law about it).

So is the right TE strategy to crush the Creationism and take out the teleology with it, or to put the teleology back in Evolutionary science?

Chip - #76218

January 28th 2013


What do you mean, put it back?  It was never there.

Jon Garvey - #76219

January 28th 2013

Quite right Chip - I added the “Evolutionary” as an afterthought, and it put a lie in the sentence - it was science that was once completely teleological. Evolution’s ateology, though, goes right back to its Deist roots in Buffon, as here.

Which doesn’t mean ateleology is necessary to evolutionary explanations, just that it’s historically very difficult to escape from, even for Christians.

One difference between the UK and US is that here most kids don’t have a home background in Christianity as an alternative to secular education. The more secular America gets, the less they’ll turn to creationism, and the more to nihilism - that’s happening here, though there isn’t the prohibition on religoion in schools, which mitigates it. The educators ought to be alert to that.

PNG - #76226

January 28th 2013

It isn’t quite true to say that is merely an assumption that there is no teleology. The fact is that the vast majority of mutations are neutral, a smaller proportion are deleterious and a yet smaller proportion have some benefit. That isn’t an assumption. It is an observation. If all or most mutations were beneficial, teleology would obviously be inescapable. As it is, any possible directed change is hidden in a large background that doesn’t look purposeful. Is is all too common for biologists to be accused of simply assuming something when in fact the general belief comes from what is observed. What is observed here doesn’t prove ateleology, but it does leave it open as an option for those so inclined.

Eddie - #76232

January 28th 2013


You aren’t catching my meaning.

I grant that the % of mutations that are beneficial, harmful, etc. could be settled in principle by observation, and I have no quarrel with your report on those observations. 

I was referring not to specific mutations, but the question whether, overall, the evolutionary process has specific ends or aims.  Darwin, and all the classic neo-Darwinists, assumed that it did not.  So do most evolutionary biologists today, and most biologists generally.  Even TE biologists, when talking behind closed doors with their secular scientific colleagues, also assume that it does not, i.e., that there is nothing in the process which tends toward, say, elephants, or magnolias, or man.

Part of our problem, PNG, is that you are usually speaking as a professional biologist, whereas I am speaking as a historian/philosopher of science.  Our vocabularies do not mesh well.  You would understand where I was coming from better if you would read some Lovejoy, Koyre, Burtt, Cassirer, etc.  I look at modern science with respect, but also with a view to understanding its working assumptions, assumptions which are very rarely discussed by working scientists themselves—and which working scientists often seem blissfully unaware of.  It was not so in the days of Bacon and Descartes.  Back then epistemological foundations had to be discussed, in order to get modern science going.  But once modern science became successful, and professionalized, scientists lost the motive to keep on thinking about the ultimate foundations of their activity.  The average scientist today thinks about philosophical foundations of science almost never, whereas Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. thought about them all the time.  

It is not just evolutionary biology, but all modern science, which has assumed the non-existence of teleology in nature.  This poses less difficulty for, say, Newtonian physics than for evolutionary biology.  The laws of Newtonian physics alone would guarantee the order that we see in the heavens, even if it was just sheer accident that nature possessed such laws.  But the laws of cells, membranes, etc. would not guarantee any particular evolutionary results.  Much depends on contingent events which are the product of local circumstances, not laws.  This raises questions about how any mind, even an all-powerful one, could guarantee any evolutionary results without intervening.  But that is an aside.

Historically, what happened is that Darwin and others assumed that a naturalistic account of origins was possible, and tried to imagine mechanisms (neither supernatural nor teleological) which could make it possible.  The desire for a non-supernatural, non-teleological account of biological origins long pre-dated any discovery concerning population genetics, random mutations, etc.  Teleology was ruled out so that neo-Darwinism could be born.

Your account is what I would call (without meaning to be dismissive) a “naive” account of the history of science.  It represents the scientists as metaphysically neutral investigators of nature who “discovered” that random mutations plus natural selection had in fact generated all the species we see, and that the question of purpose is therefore something that theologians and philosophers must now wrestle with in light of the “truth” of the neo-Darwinian account of evolution.  But that isn’t what happened.  If you read the primary sources, and good theoretical analyses of the history of science from about 1600 on, you will see that the metaphysics preceded the detailed science by a good deal—in cosmology, geology, biology, etc.

The problem with the BioLogos approach to “science and religion” is that it assumes that the “science” is given, and is metaphysics-free, and that it’s therefore just a matter of convincing conservative evangelicals that the science is not threatening to their faith.  But the science—and I don’t mean “scientism” like that of Dawkins, I mean even just the “science” of neo-Darwinism, was loaded with metaphysics from the beginning.  And working scientists are rarely the people to notice that.  That’s why the conversation can’t be merely between “scientists” and “theologians.”  It has to include philosophers and historians, who often understand the historical roots and metaphysical assumptions behind both scientific and theological claims better than the scientists and theologians themselves do.  I’m hoping that under its new management, BioLogos will give proportionately less space to articles on population genetics and whale fossils, and proportionately more space to foundational questions about the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory, and of science in general.

PNG - #76233

January 28th 2013

Eddie, I started in philosophy before going into research - I’m aware of the history, although not in as much detail as you are. My point is just that, whereas Darwin knew next to nothing about inheritance and mutations, today everyone is aware of the data on mutations and knows that evolution can’t go anywhere except down the paths that mutations make available. My impression after being among the biology tribe for several decades is that at this point the idea that evolution is undirected had less to do with dead philosophers than with the common observations about mutations, especially how dreadful the consequences can be in genetic disease. I would guess that the 40% or so of scientists who believe in God probably believe as I do that, despite some appearances, evolution is directed at least to some degree. The non-believers probably see no reason in the evidence to assume anything but a lack of teleology, since things look “random” and that’s what would fit with their personal philosophy. Indeed, I would guess most would say that that appearance of “randomness” is a lot of the reason for their atheism/agnosticism. I think it was Newman who said something to the effect that “I believe in design because I believe in God, not the other way around.”

Eddie - #76235

January 28th 2013


I agree with you that mutations seem random.  Where we disagree, of course, is over the neo-Darwinian context in which you place “mutations.”  You are convinced, as I am not, that these random mutations, combined with natural selection, are capable of creating new body plans.  I don’t think you have a shred of evidence that they can do so, nor do I think that any biologist living has such evidence.  The thing is believed because of a conviction that there has to be a natural explanation for the origin of species.

There *may* be a natural origin for the origin of species.  I am not contesting the possibility.  I am talking not about whether the proposition is true or false.  I am talking about why people have believed it to be true.  My point is that the conviction that there was a wholly natural origin was adopted by biology long before the most basic mechanical explanations—genes, DNA, protein synthesis, etc.—were even known about.  The metaphysical and epistemological commitments drove the science.  That remains true even if, as you believe, the science later justified the original commitments.

Analogy:  the detective might suspect someone on a hunch, and later evidence might prove the hunch right; but that doesn’t make the hunch evidence, nor should anyone else have been bound to accept the hunch.  Yet from the moment Darwin’s book appeared, the science propaganda machine (Huxley, etc.) said that everyone should accept the hunch and trust that the evidence—fossil links, actual mechanisms of inheritance, proof that Lord Kelvin was wrong about the age of the earth, a detailed account of the useful “intermediate steps” in complex organs, etc. would one day be forthcoming.  There was a *will to believe* in naturalistic mechanisms of origins within the scientific community.

Darwin did not have such a “will to believe” regarding the origin of life itself; he was agnostic about that.  But the contemporary body of “origin-of-life” scientists *does* have such a “will to believe”—again well in advance of their ability to explain how even the simplest information-bearing organic system could have arisen.  That’s metaphysical commitment in action.  And the TEs, in large measure (except for a very few who have granted, usually as a very hesitant admission, that maybe the origin of life took a miracle) have the same metaphysical commitment: when it comes to origins (as opposed to historical interactions with Israel) God works only through natural causes.  The palpable hostility toward Meyer on this site did not come  from the alleged minor errors in biochemistry that were found on two or three pages of his book; the hostility was caused by the fact that his book, by arguing for the design of the first cell, seemed to imply that more than natural causes were at work in the origin of life.  And the TE columnists and commenters here were every bit as indignant at that prospect as the atheist ones.  Such is the pervasiveness of the modern metaphysic that even many TEs embrace it.

Chip - #76240

January 29th 2013

And the TEs, in large measure (except for a very few who have granted, usually as a very hesitant admission, that maybe the origin of life took a miracle) have the same metaphysical commitment: when it comes to origins (as opposed to historical interactions with Israel) God works only through natural causes.

I’m inclined to agree, but they also react with hostility when such commitments are (rightly, IMO) labelled as deism. 

What they end up with is a vanishingly small sliver of ground to try to defend.   When their scientific hat is on, it’s all naturalism, all the way down.  And after the relentless beating of that drum (along with the theological arm’s consistent chipping away at biblical authority, emphasis on accomodationism and the like), the trotting out of a periodic “worship” or “faith” message is pretty hollow. 

Chip - #76217

January 28th 2013

Natural selection has, after all produced us

And this means, according to the standard theory, unguided natural selection, whose only raw material is unintended random mutation.

Given these assumptions, our existence has no more more purpose than the canyon “intended” by the river that eroded it, or the tornado “proposed” by the warm and cold fronts that spawned it—that is, if natural selection is in fact natural, and if consistency with one’s presuppositions is important. 

GJDS - #76231

January 28th 2013

On teleology, we have a number of assumptions that natural scientists and some philosophers of science have discussed. The theory of natural selection (and this term is used in most serious publications) makes a number of hypothetical claims. If there is variation in heritable traits and if these differ in fitness there will be some type of adaptation. The theory by Darwin is now set purely in causal terms – if this is accepted by scientists then teleology is simply removed from their thinking. Of course, when these claims are made, it is necessary for them to provide mechanisms and formulations such as those by Newton. It seems as if many evolutionists want their cake and also wish to eat it. Unlike Newton, Darwin did not provide central features of his theory, nor universal generalisations. Indeed each of the presentations of Darwin turns out to be “inadequate to capture one or another of the processes … described as Darwinian evolution” (Rosenberg, page 173). Lewontin is reported by Rosenberg to have re-presented Darwin’s views so as to be “silent on the blindness of variation or the passive role of the environment”. These types of arguments would be expected from a semantic approach, which inevitably produces a large number of models – some models are adequate for a set of observations and not for others. The recent meta-analysis suggests a weak (or irrelevant) correlation with natural selection (one needs to be careful with conclusions in this area, as a correlation coefficient of say 0.6 would be dismissed as irrelevant by the exact sciences, while the biosciences consider it adequate – the best that we can state is it is weak and similar to other variables the analysis may include).

There are some correlations that are strong (e.g. predators and prey) without (according to these workers) showing anything about natural selection. It is more likely to fit a view of a balance in nature, and so on. It is also possible to postulate ‘purpose’ from such studies, instead of selection. Equilibrium modelling may also provide insights on these matters – in any event, reflection of these and other matters would indicate that Darwin’s ideas are not universal, do not provide coherent concepts, and as yet have not led to the type of formulations and correlations that one would expect from a strong and overriding law of natural selection. Teleology has been IMO a casualty in the war between atheists-theists and creationists-evolutionist.

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